Charles Harder fell in love with the University of California Santa Cruz the first time he visited in the fall of 1986. He remembers the wispy clouds, bright blue sky and wet-glistening dew of the forest around him. The scene reminded him of the camping trips that his best friend’s mom would take him and his buddy on to National Parks like Yosemite. “I was over the moon, I just loved it,” Harder remembers. “It was like we were simpatico.”
The following year, Harder moved from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Cruz, where he began his freshman year at UCSC as a biology major, but soon switched to politics.
He embedded himself in the local Democratic scene, leading the UCSC College Democrats. “No one else wanted to do it,” he says. He remembers winning awards from Farr, Dianne Feinstein, Leon Panetta and Henry Mello. Harder served for one quarter as managing editor of the Santa Cruz Independent, a campus newspaper at the time. He took theater arts classes and sang as a tenor in the elite UCSC Chamber Singers choir. Thirsty for adventure, he biked across the country on a summer vacation in 1989, at age 19.
Those who knew Harder, a 1991 graduate of the university’s Merrill College, and have followed his post-college career have been surprised to see where it has led him. Now an attorney, he’s defending Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, as his personal lawyer.
“If you told any of us back in 1990 that he’d be working for Trump, we’d say you’re fucking crazy, because he was a liberal guy,” says a former high-ranking staffer at the Independent, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Washington Post reported that Harder donated $500 to Barack Obama in 2008 and voted in the 2016 Democratic primary, but that, in December 2016, after Trump’s election, he changed his party affiliation to nonpartisan. He won’t say how he voted in 2016, but stresses that he’s long written checks to candidates of both parties, expressing an affinity for politicians like former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It’s nice that we have a secret ballot,” Harder says. “I don’t think I’ve ever disclosed who I’ve voted for, at least not to a reporter.”
HUSH WITH FAME
Harder has been working for Trump on a few cases, including the lawsuit brought by porn star Stormy Daniels over a dispute about hush money stemming from an alleged affair she had with the president. Harder’s also defending him against former aide and fellow reality television star Omarosa Manigault. Trump may be one of the most polarizing presidents in American history, but Harder says representing him has nothing to do with politics.
“The things where I’ve represented the president—they really have nothing to do with public policy,” Harder says, his shoes kicked off in his Beverly Hills office, revealing socks with a pattern of dancing hula girls. “I’m not representing him on immigration, or the environment, or the economy, or foreign policy. I have nothing to do with any of that. So people should not look to me as if I have any role to play on that, because I don’t.”
He says he doesn’t have a “litmus test” for potential clients. Rather he takes on cases that he likes and that he thinks have merit, and that he turns about two-thirds of potential cases away.
Harder is also representing the Trump campaign and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. He represented Melania Trump in a defamation suit against the Daily Mail that settled for $2.9 million. Last year, he wrote the New York Times a letter on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, threatening to sue if the paper published its months-long investigative report into sexual assault allegations against the movie mogul. Harder resigned from Weinstein’s legal team a few days later.
Harder’s big break was representing Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media in a case that earned a $140 million judgment. Of course, he wasn’t exactly a small-time attorney at the time, having already represented Hollywood celebrities like Schwarzenegger,Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Sigourney Weaver, Bradley Cooper, Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon and Lena Dunham.
Harder’s earlier Hollywood work often focused on celebrity images, like when a furniture company was using Eastwood’s name and image to sell chairs without his permission.
Harder, whose two sons attend middle school in Santa Monica, has clear turquoise eyes, and were it not for his silvering brown hair, would look a decade younger than his 48 years. Sitting in the sunlit communal “living room” area of the law office, he asks me not to record—an uncommon request from sources in news interviews. He says it’s always been his policy with reporters.
Politically, Harder says he strongly supports the environment and civil rights, but also believes that government spending and taxes are out of control. He has a vision that government should work more like a smartphone app, like Uber. Disillusioned by the news media, he sees CNN and the New York Times as being as far to the left as Fox News is to the right. His views, he says, have evolved slowly over time.
Sam Farr, a Democrat who represented the Monterey Bay in the House of Representatives for 20 years, has vague memories of Harder, even though he had probably about 100 other interns after Harder’s tenure. Farr remembers him as very likeable and “a real go-getter.”
Although Farr wasn’t familiar with Harder’s career, he isn’t surprised to hear that his former intern found success as an attorney. Farr thinks Harder’s success shows how valuable an internship can be, as it shows how government processes work. He hopes the experience has made Harder a better citizen and a better lawyer.
Farr is a little disappointed, though, to hear about some of the shifts in Harder’s politics.
“It seems like his desire to be big lawyer has stepped on the good learning he got at UC Santa Cruz,” Farr says, before adding something his Democrat father, who had been raised conservative before attending UC Berkeley, told him: “People with good educations don’t end up as Republicans.”
“Sure, some do,” Harder responds, when asked about Farr’s quip.
“But I’m not a Republican, so no comment on that one.”
Sitting across from Harder in early October, I got a clear sense of what it would take my fellow left-leaning friends in the area a couple more weeks to learn: Trump could prevail in his legal battles against Daniels.
Say what you want about Harder—you might find his politics confusing or perhaps believe that he’s protecting a president who shows dangerously authoritarian tendencies. In conversation, though, even a total novice could plainly see that Harder is a serious lawyer. I knew, even in the midst of my discussion with him, that this was a bizarre revelation to come to. Considering that he is an attorney involved in one of the news cycle’s highest-profile lawsuits, it should go without saying.
But I only had to follow the antics of prosecuting attorney Michael Avenatti, who seems to be using the legal system to run for the Democratic nomination for president—and whose skill for trolling the American public nearly matches that of the sitting president himself—to know that Daniels, sympathetic as many Americans might find her, might not have an easy day in court.
“Lawyers run the gamut,” Harder says. “You could have a lawyer that barely passed the bar and is unethical. You could have lawyers that are super geniuses, but they’re evil geniuses. You could have lawyers who are super by-the-book. The approach that I take is that I have fun, but I’m very serious.”
The October ruling was not central to the Daniels-Trump hush money feud itself—that remains to be decided—but rather concerned a tweet that the president had sent about Daniels, which she claimed was defamatory. In throwing out the case, the judge ordered Daniels’ team to pay Trump’s legal fees. Avenatti immediately appealed the decision. In the days after, Avenatti suffered two other legal setbacks—an eviction notice for his law firm and an order to pay a former associate $4.85 million. (He was charged this week with domestic assault but has denied the charges.)
Before the Daniels affair, Harder’s most controversial case came in 2016, when his team won $140 million for his client, the wrestler Hulk Hogan, against Gawker after the online news gossip site posted a video of Hogan having sex with his best friend’s wife.
The Netflix documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press painted the lawsuit as a frightening moment for American journalists, many of whom are open to attack by a president who has called them “the enemy of the people” and threatened to expand the reach of libel laws.
The Gawker suit was funded, to the tune of a reported $10 million, by Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who had a vendetta against Gawker, at least in part, because the site outed him as gay. (Theil, coincidentally, later served as an advisor to Trump, most notably on his transition team to the presidency.) Free press advocates have raised concerns that other billionaires might use the courts to take down news outlets they don’t like.
Harder says he was surprised by the dollar amount, which was $40 million above what they had asked for, and which he believes would have been reduced on an appeal. Gawker ultimately went bankrupt.
He’s also adamant that Gawker’s blatant refusal to take down the video amounted to a “horrific privacy violation”—arguing that, were it not for outside help, Hogan would have never been able to afford the legal fees.
“The man was in a home. The doors were closed. He had no idea he was being recording. Everything was consensual. The public’s not allowed. The jury 100 percent agreed,” Harder says.
When he reads and watches the news, Harder feels that it’s very often too one-sided. He believes the news should be straight-ahead, showing two sides of an issue. He argues that the New York Times shoots itself in the foot for printing negative coverage, like its months-long investigation into the Trump family’s inheritance, arguing that it will turn many readers away, although he also predicts the story will win a Pulitzer Prize.
“It’s way too partisan. It’s dangerous, and I think the American people are not happy about that, either,” says Harder, suggesting that former President Obama would probably agree. “We’ve gotten a lot more polarized as a people. The tone of what people are saying is getting more and more chilling, and I don’t think that’s productive. It used to be that we would disagree with each other, but now we’re arguing more.”
Harder has spoken favorably about changing libel laws, though certainly with less bravado and more nuance than Trump does. In particular, Harder argues that the burden on plaintiffs is far too high to prove that a given reporter had “actual malice” and “reckless disregard for the truth,” making the current framework unfair.
In addition to the Daily Mail and Gawker, Harder has taken on other media organizations. He hasn’t always prevailed, but the legal news website Above the Law wrote, “If you’re looking for a lawyer to bring a publication to its knees, Harder’s the leader in the clubhouse.”
Conn Hallinan, a longtime journalist who served as UCSC’s print media adviser and remembers the Independent, paints Harder’s media work as a “dangerous” piece in a changing landscape of threats to news organizations.
“If someone sues you, you may be able to win the case, but the average decision for one of those suits is $45,000. If small publications get charged with defamation, it may put them out of business. Anything that encourages these cases is very dangerous to the press,” says Hallinan.
Harder insists that he isn’t against a free press, just bad actors.
He stresses also that he doesn’t only represent celebrities and political figures. He’s been working on two cases that he has petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court—one on behalf of a woman he says was defamed on Yelp.com, and another for an alleged rape victim of comedian Bill Cosby.
Amy Everitt, who worked with Harder at the Independent, first met Harder during their freshman year and shared politics classes with him. An ardent defender of freedom of the press, she believes journalists should be able to pursue any news story they want to.
She says that many times, however, media outlets like Gawker cross the line, delving into personal issues with no news value, and should face the consequences.
Everitt, now the state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, hasn’t kept in touch with Harder, but, like many who remember his college days, she has no issue with his business decisions.
“Charles is doing his job. He’s got a client, and lawyers defend their clients,” Everitt says. “He’s an enormously thoughtful person, and he has an enormous respect for the rule of law. When he gets up in the morning, I think he does the best job he can for his clients.”
GREAT MEADOW DAYS
Les Gardner, a longtime leader in the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party, remembers when he brought Jerry Brown to UCSC in 1990. Brown, then a former governor, was campaigning on a get-out-the-vote effort for Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, then a former San Francisco mayor who was running for governor.
Gardner enlisted Harder to draw the biggest turnout possible to the Great Meadow for the rally. When Gardner checked in with the student leader, he learned that Harder had printed out two flyers, a serious-looking blue one and a separate teal one that read “Governor Moonbeam”—a nickname that, unbeknownst to Harder, Brown hated. The thought of Brown catching sight of one of those signs worried Gardner, and the night before the event, Harder went through campus, ripping down each Moonbeam sign one by one.
Gardner heard that Brown would be going to visit the chancellor, and once he learned Brown’s route, he double-checked to make sure the flyers had all come down along the way. The ordeal served as a reminder that, for all his ambition, Harder was just 20 years old.
“He was a very bright young man,” Gardner says with a laugh.
“And he had a great spirit, but he was a kid.”
Jacob Pierce is the news editor at Good Times